Do you know there are some major gangs in the USA? They are all around. In fact, all I have to do is take a walk across the street and see the beautiful artwork all over the trains parked in my neighborhood, to be reminded.
Many years ago I worked in a juvenile detention center as a social skills instructor. I sat around in a pod full of girls twice a week and listened to them sing, talk, cry, and retell their childhood abuse stories.
One day, I decided I would make a home visit to one of the girls recently released. I looked up her address, got into my red car, at the time, and proceeded to navigate around the area until I finally located the address I had scribbled out on a piece of paper.
I parked, got out, looked around the disheveled neighborhood and tried not to judge the yard I just opened the gate to enter into. It reminded me of the old TV show, Sanford and Son. It was pretty messy, smelly, and dirty, but I was there with gifts for a young lady and show her I was still available for her, even though she was on the "outs."
I knocked on the door and was told by an older woman that the young lady I was to visit wasn't home. So I left the bag full of lotion, shampoo, and soaps, with a note to call me if she needed anything. As I walked back out the gate, I noticed someone walking across the road who I had known for a couple of years.
I waved and started walking towards him, "Hey, Antonio, how have you been?" He looked at me with a mean, almost evil look and kept walking. I loved this kid because he was one of the students I helped with math, reading, and social skills five days a week at a local Jr. High.
He was the sweetest thirteen year old boy I had ever met. In fact, when I first saw this young man, I thought he was a girl, he was so sensitive, caring, and pretty. I had been a teacher's assistant in a Severe Behavior Disorder classroom, before I took the detention center job, and Antonio was one the students there.
Antonio kept walking, ignoring his negative body language, I said, "Antonio, how's your mom?" He looked at me as if to say, "Get out of here."
It stopped me in mid-stride, in the middle of the road, in this unfamiliar neighborhood in Tacoma. As I began to shake my head in disbelief at why Antonio just treated me like that, I reached for the keys in my purse and started back towards my car.
"Why is Antonio, who adored me as a positive adult in his life, acting this way?" I thought. When I turned toward my car I noticed there were a bunch of unfamiliar faces all around me and a couple right in front of my car. I realized, I was surrounded. My heart started beating quicker, I started breathing harder, I was surrounded by an African American group of men and boys all wearing dark colored clothing.
I looked at each one of them and smiled really, really big, acting nothing like I felt inside. I stopped because it was obvious I was not going to be getting in my car without a struggle or some help of some kind.
"What happened to that lady across the road that had been yelling at someone with her arm holding the door open a few minutes ago?" I desperately asked myself.
A car drove up, it was another man, he was in a big white Monte Carlo type of car. He looked at me and gave me the once over with his eyes and said with the most seductive tone, "Hey, baby, mmm, mmm, mmm, you're lookin' good." Like a wolf getting ready to anticipate the chase, he licked his lips. Unbeknownst to him, I began to pray from the depth of my soul, with words I cannot remember.
All of a sudden, something changed, I became brave. I smiled really big at the man in the car and said with conviction, "Jesus loves you." I looked at each man as I turned back toward my car and took a step toward it slowly, saying to each man, "Jesus loves you, Jesus loves you, Jesus loves you."
Like a curtain for a stage show slowly opens, each man moved away from me as I continued smiling and proclaiming the Name above all Names, the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords, to them. "Jesus loves you, Jesus loves you, Jesus loves you."
I reached for my car door with confidence and the man in front of it, for a split second, challenged me with his body and eyes, until I spoke my final plea, face to face, "Jesus loves you." He moved out of the way, in such a way, as if he just opened the door for me, but he didn't, I did.
I shut it quickly, locked the doors, turned the key, and put it into drive with the man's face now glued to the glass of my car, "Hey, you gotta dollar?" He yelled. I must've jumped a foot in fear because I didn't know he had come back.
I looked at his face again and felt like I just saw evil, and peeped out while cowering down and shaking my head, "no."
As I drove away I looked around, not a car, not a soul, but me and this group of men had been in that road together. It was like Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, in the fiery furnace. They weren't alone when they came out alive, not even smelling like smoke, and neither was I, on that day. Jesus walked that road with me, Jesus held my hand, Jesus escorted me into my car.
When I got back to my home base called "Youth for Christ," I told the men I worked with what had happened. They asked, "where were you?"
With tears rolling down my face, weeping, and shaking, I said, "Um, I was at 23rd and Way."
They said, "Stephanie, you were on hilltop, you were surrounded by a gang."
I saw Antonio a couple times after that in the detention center and he always asked me to come visit him, he was sweet again. He asked me to read the Bible to him, he asked me to pray for him, he asked me if he could have Jesus too. A year later, I got the news, Antonio had been shot by a drive by shooter while he sat in the window of someone's house on hilltop.
Yes, there are gangs in Tacoma, I met some of them, once -- I prayed with one of them, several times -- I will see, at least, one of them again someday.
Read the latest news from the Tacoma News Tribune about the local gang, The Hilltop Crips.